MLB: Wild Card Games Preview

It’s the first week of October, meaning baseball’s playoffs are here.  However, before Division Series play begins later this week, first the Wild Card winners in each respective league play in the one-off, winner take all Wild Card Game in each league.  While I still don’t like the format, as I would like to see this round be a best-of-three series, I do like the additional team the extra round gets into the playoffs, as the Cubs and Astros, who haven’t been in the postseason since 2008 and 2005, respectively, are the occupants of the second Wild Card spot in their respective leagues.  Here is a preview of the pair of Wild Card Games:

American League Wild Card Game

Houston Astros at New York Yankees
Tuesday, 8:00 pm ET, ESPN

The Yankees will play their first playoff game since 2012 tonight in the Bronx, hosting the Astros who, as I mentioned, are making their first playoff appearance since losing the 2005 World Series.  Here is how the matchup breaks down:

Starting pitching:
The Yankees send Masahiro Tanaka (12-7, 3.51 ERA) to the mound tonight, but the probable AL Cy Young winner, Dallas Keuchel (20-8, 2.48 ERA) gets the call for Houston.  Even on short rest, he should be excellent.
Advantage: Astros

Bullpen:
The Astros bullpen has the better collective ERA (3.27 for Houston, 3.70 for New York), and also has more experience, although the Yankees’ Andrew Miller has some excellent playoff outings last year with the Orioles.
Advantage: Astros

Lineup:
The question of experience against age comes into play for the Yankees, with all the Yankees’ starters except one being over 31.  Both teams aren’t great offensively, with the Yankees collectively hitting .251 and the Astros hitting .250, and although for the year the Yankees outscored the Astros 764-729, the Yankees are without injured slugger Mark Teixeira (31 HR, 79 RBI), creating a hole in their lineup.  The Astros have also out-homered the Yankees 230-212 on the year.
Advantage: Astros

Atmosphere:
One-game playoff at Yankee Stadium.  Enough said.
Advantage: Yankees

Experience:
The Yankees roster is made up of big name players like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixiera, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann, among others, who have a plethora of postseason experience.  The Astros are a very talented group of young guns, many of whom are making their first playoff appearance, and while many say they won’t be fazed by the moment, history shows that their inexperience may be a red flag.
Advantage: Yankees

Manager:
Joe Girardi of the Yankees has plenty of playoff experience, including a World Series title in 2009.  Houston’s AJ Hinch has no playoff experience, but is one of the favorites for AL Manager of the Year for the job he has done with this young Astros team.
Advantage: even

This matchup is very even, so this game should be close, but with Keuchel pitching, I will favor the Astros.  Were Teixeira in the Yankee lineup, it might be a different story.

The Astros will win and advance to the ALDS to play the Kansas City Royals.

 

National League Wild Card Game

Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates
Wednesday, 8:00 pm ET, TBS

For the third straight year, despite a 98-win season, the Pirates are relegated to the Wild Card Game after the Cardinals won the NL Central.  A third team from the Central, the Cubs, who won 97 games themselves, is a worthy opponent.  The Pirates and Cubs have the second and third best records in all of baseball, yet with this format one of them will be eliminated tomorrow night.

Starting pitching:
Gerrit Cole is starting for the Pirates, and has had an outstanding year (19-8, 2.60 ERA), but he goes up against Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA), one of the three favorites for the Cy Young Award in the NL, and has held the Pirates to a .151 batting average in five starts against them this year.
Advantage: Cubs

Bullpen:
The Cubs aren’t bad in the bullpen, particularly with closer Hector Rondon holding a 1.67 ERA, and four members of the bullpen having major league closing experience.  However, the Pirates boast a 2.67 bullpen ERA, the best in baseball, with Tony Watson (1.91 ERA) and Mark Melancon (2.23 ERA, 51 saves) forming an excellent eighth and ninth inning duo.
Advantage: Pirates

Lineup:
For the season, the Cubs were outscored by the Pirates 697-689, and the Pirates had a higher batting average (.260 for Pittsburgh, .244 for Chicago).  However, in head-to-head matchups the Cubs outscored the Pirates 81-71 on their way to an 11-8 head-to-head record, and the Cubs have more homers than the Bucs by a wide margin (171-140).  The Cubs also have two impressive individual stat-lines, with Anthony Rizzo (.278 avg, 31 HR, 101 RBI) and likely NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant (.275 avg, 26 HR, 99 RBI), although the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen (.292 avg, 23 HR, 96 RBI) is one of the game’s best as well.
Advantage: Cubs (barely)

Atmosphere:
The Pirates are hosting this game for the third straight year, so you would think they have the advantage.  However, home teams are 2-4 in the short history of the Wild Card Game, with the Pirates winning at home in 2013, but losing at home last year.  The Cubs won only one game less on the road than they did at home during the season.
Advantage: even

Experience:
As I’ve said, the Pirates have been here before.  Jon Lester is a Cub with tons of playoff experience, but he’s not likely to pitch in this game, and the average age of the Cubs offensive players is a very young 26.5.  Much of the Pirates roster is the same as the past two years.
Advantage: Pirates

Manager:
Both Clint Hurdle of the Pirates and Joe Maddon of the Cubs have led other franchises to the World Series, and are trying to do the same with their team this year.  Both are candidates for NL Manager of the Year, although Maddon is the favorite.
Advantage: even

This is a very difficult pick, as this matchup is very even between two complete clubs, as evidenced by their records of 98-64 and 97-65.  Arrieta has a 0.41 ERA since August 1, which is an MLB record (min. 10 starts), giving the Cubs their best chance to unseat a very strong Pirates team, who is a World Series contender should they escape the Wild Card round.

The Cubs will win and advance to the NLDS to play the St. Louis Cardinals.

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